What's Cool In Road Cycling

Top Rides: La Marmotte

“I am now a humble man, O.K. maybe not but I should be. I have just completed the hardest athletic endeavor of my life.” A few days before the Tour passed by, some 8500 cyclists gathered in Bourg d’Oisans for a 175km ride over 3 legendary Alpine climbs – the ride is called “la Marmotte”, and this is one man’s story…

By Daylian Rousseau
This story first ran in August, 2005, and makes an excellent read for this Friday.

I am now a humble man, O.K. maybe not but I should be. I have just completed the hardest athletic endeavor of my life. I initially had a goal of completing the race in 8:49:00 to get a gold certificate, but that was a bit bold. My final official time was 10:08:00 actual ride time was 09:41:27.

La Marmotte is a race that takes place every July, in the French Alps. The course is always the same. It starts in Bourg D’Oisans, which is the town at the base of the mythical Alpe d’Huez. It then travels over the Croix de Fer, Telegraph, Galibier, and then finally finishes on the top of Alpe d’Huez. The race totals 174 kilometers and climbs 5000 meters. La Marmotte is just one race in a popular series of races in Europe, called Cyclo-Sportif. I was told that this year that there were over 9000 starters; most are just hoping to finish. A very elite few will be gunning for top honors, the others will be riding against the clock for Gold, Silver, and Bronze certificates.

8500 riders think this is fun.

La Marmotte is extremely popular among Dutch and French riders and is considered a right of passage for many. I might add that the Dutch riders perform very well, and in large numbers. It is a paradox that will puzzle me for some time. The Netherlands to the best of my knowledge is flat, La Marmotte is anything but. Yet they fly up the mountains like the purest of climbers.

Map Source: www.customgetaways.com.

In fact that is how I found out about La Marmotte. My job has me living in Japan, and working with a host of different nationalities. Through common interest we have established a cycling club. One of our riders and my training partner is Jacco. He is Dutch and like many Dutchman is a cycling fanatic, and an extraordinary rider. He told me about this race in late January of 2005, I registered and immediately started training.

It was SRO in Bourg d’Oisans.

I was drawn to the race of course by the mythical and legendary reputation of the mountains but also for the opportunity to find out about myself. How would I endure pain for periods of time that far exceeded my own experience? How would I cope with changes in the weather and temperature? It would turn out to be one of the best experiences of my life.

Paula and I moved to the top of Alpe D’Huez from Bourg D’Oisans three days before the race. Our room was outstanding. It was perched on the edge of a cliff at the top of Alpe D’Huez and the view was tremendous – you could even see part of Bourg D’Oisans.

I woke up at 05:45 after a nervous sleep. They had been forecasting rain for the race with snow on Galibier, so I went to the window to peer outside and saw that the entire valley was covered in fog. The temperature was three degrees and I knew it would be a cold descent. I tried to eat but I guess I was a little nervous because nothing really seemed appealing. But, I managed to cram a couple slices of carb cake and a carb drink into my stomach.

All dressed up and 175km to go.

I had to gear up like I would for a March ride in Osaka, it was quite cold. I had the usual arm and leg warmers, the undershirt jersey vest and rain jacket. All of this gear would be nice for the descents but I had to carry it up the climbs as well, along with the spare tire, two tubes, three CO2 cartridges and eight powerbars.

Ready to roll in Bourg d’Oisans.

To Reach the Top, At First Your Must Descend
I left the hotel at 06:15 for the descent down to the race start in Bourg D’Oisans. The descent was cold, but I didn’t really notice. I was just so amazed by the steady trail of cyclists down the entire length of the descent. As I arrived into the outskirts of town they had already began to corral us with respect to our numbers, mine was 2639. So off I went to my appropriate lane. It seemed as if everyone in town had got out of bed to see us off – the sides of the streets were lined with well wishers cheering us on while curb to curb of every street was filled with cyclists. Seeing this had me mentally preparing what I needed to do to avoid a crash during the start.

The start of the race was like nothing I had ever seen. We’d heard rumors that there were over 7000 cyclists in town that were going to take part in the race. However, twelve hours after the race I saw 8467 roll into the hotel, almost 8500 cyclists, what an event. The official start time was 07:15 but that was for number 001. By the time I crossed the start line it was 07:35, and we were off.

The initial 10 km is flat and I thought everyone would use it as a nice warm up because there was a lot of riding to do. Yet, the pace was fast and furious from the start we were doing 38km/hr, right off the bat. It has to be my favorite memory of the race. There I am in the middle of this peleton a thousand riders strong. I’m bumping shoulders and elbows with the guys beside me, and to my left there is a team of Spanish riders laughing and joking. To my right the Italians yelling to their friends up ahead, French guys behind me and in front of me some Dutch guys. It felt so completely international, nothing like I had ever experienced. Then I would look down at my speedometer and it says 38km/hr and I am barely pedaling.

Seems nice enough up here… clear skies, fresh air….

Onto The Glandon!
The race came apart when we hit the climb to Col De Glandon. I had planned to go easy on this climb and keep my heart rate at 163 bpm; I figured I would be fresh for Galibier that way. But everyone seemed so strong, I was passed by about 400 riders, but I stayed disciplined and just trudged along, my legs were feeling great. I reached the summit and began my descent into the fog.

This was a bad descent as I think everyone was a little bit nervous and being much too aggressive. After the summit the road goes straight for about 300 meters then a right turn for 200 meters into a left switchback. It was here that a rider went straight instead of right and cruised off the side and landed on the road below. One of the other riders I spoke with said he saw the medics doing chest compressions on the guy but didn’t know anymore than that.

Four kilometers into the descent I rounded a turn and saw a policeman waving a yellow flag. Behind him was a mangled mess of fifteen riders and bikes rolling around in the grass, the result of a recent crash. For the next two kilometers things were great and I was beginning to think that the worst was behind me and that the rest of the ride should be smooth. Then as a line of six riders including myself are rounding a fast left turn at around 50 km the two guys in front of me touch veer away and then touch again and BOOM! They are tumbling now, bikes and bodies, I leaned my bike and went left, and the two guys behind me went right. I looked back and saw the guy who caused the accident get up quickly and run to the other guy who was rolling around in the middle of the road. The next twenty kilometers was smooth sailing and just a beautiful descent we even had a few hundred meters on zee cobbles.

Through The Valley
We then had about 14 kilometers at about 2% grade to travel before we got to the approach to Telegraph. It was windy, a headwind. I could find a group to comfortably stay with. I tucked into one group but they were just pushing too hard, bastards. I figured if I stayed with these guys I would be wasted for the Telegraph. So I went from doing 28km/hr with these guys to doing 21km/hr by myself, or so I thought. I look back and there are probably twenty riders that I’m pulling. I looked back and motioned for the guy behind me to take a turn pulling but he just smiled and motioned for me to continue. I pulled for a good 10 kilometers but I wasn’t pushing any harder than I would have if I were alone. In hindsight that was a big mistake I should have been more selfish and pulled off on to the back. We hit the Telegraph and I felt pretty good, and it was really starting to warm up.

Near the cold summit of the Galibier.

The climb up Telegraph is awesome.
You climb into the trees and you really have no idea where the road is going but then at every switchback you get a view of the town below. At every turn the altitude gain is noticeably staggering. I worked hard up Telegraph but I had a time goal of 5:49:00 on the top of Galibier. I was within five minutes when I reached the top of Telegraph, but my knees were really starting to hurt and the pain in my right knee seemed to be connected to the pain on my right side lower back. I was starting to think it was a geometry issue, because I was riding economically and never had any Lactate build up. The only way I could get rid of this pain was to ride out of the saddle for five minutes at a time to stretch my back, and this seemed to tax me more than the climbs themselves. The pain though would never subside and stayed with me for the remainder of the race.

I obviously didn’t read my race card properly, because I was expecting a ten kilometer descent before Galibier. Not so, it was only five which meant that Galibier was a 15km climb instead of 10. My time goal started to fall apart and with eight kilometers to the top I was at my planned crossing time and I was climbing at ten kilometers per hour. I knew then that the gold certificate was out of reach but I was still naпve enough to assume that I could just coast into a silver certificate.

Suffering alone with thousands of others on the Galibier.

I crossed the top of Galibier an hour behind schedule
and man was it cold up there. There were little snow flurries as we crested the summit and the Galibier sure took its toll on people. There were many walking their bikes and stopped on the side of the road. I wanted to stop once to stretch my back after I realized that the gold was gone. I was feeling discouraged. You go through so many emotions and battles during a race like this, and although you are with 8000 riders you suffer alone.

But much to my surprise I heard my phone ring and it was a text message from Jacco telling me HUP HUP HUP and that him and Chris were cheering me on from Japan. That was huge, I put the phone back in my jersey and got out of the saddle and pumped for another three minutes stretched out my back and powered through. I noticed that when we got to the top people were already camping for when the tour arrives in four days; it will be a great vantage point.

Who’s up for a couple more kms…? (On the Galibier)

The descent down Galibier was so cold that I found myself going faster and faster, just to try and get into warmer air. I reached 63km/hr on unfamiliar roads and felt that I was doing the best descending of my life, and I was passing a fair number of people. It was a long descent, 50km. When I was climbing I was just begging for a descent. Now I was just hoping for a flat section so that I could rest my hands.

We went through six tunnels on the way back into Bourg D’Oisans and one was 1 kilometer long. It was pretty creepy going into these tunnels at 50km/hr in group’s pf 20-30 not being able to see the road, but all was fine and I didn’t see and crashes.

It started to rain and I turns out that it was just a thunderstorm but everyone kept the pace up because the road was pretty good with no sharp corners to speak of. After we emerged from the rain it started to get really hot. So I stopped to pull of my rain jacket and vest. Then off I went again. The road had leveled off again and as before it was a headwind. I looked up ahead a bit and saw a guy that was riding a good pace for me so I got out of the saddle and hammered to catch him. This time I didn’t feel guilty at all about not taking a turn at the front. By the time we arrived in Bourg D’Oisans This guy had pulled 15 of us 6km. Then there it was Alpe D’Huez…

A view from the slopes of Alpe d’Huez, looking down to Bourg d’Oisans.

The Climb To Alpe d’Huez
I rode Alpe D’Huez twice before the race and it never intimidated me. I think because I had always dreamed of climbing this mountain and had given it the respect that it deserved but today was a different day. I already had close to 4000 meters of climbing in my legs, my back and knees were hurting and I was out of contention for the gold certificate. Not to mention there were people walking there bikes everywhere.

I stopped at the bottom to relieve myself and fill my bottles at the water stop, and then off I went. Alpe D’Huez has 21 switchbacks and they are numbered from top to bottom so that the first one you reach when climbing the mountain is turn 21. The first two turns are at 12% and then there are variations of 10%, 5% for an average grade of 8%. Four days before I rode Alpe D’Huez and averaged about 12km/hr. But, as I rode up to the first turn I glanced down at my computer and saw 7.7km/hr. Then it seemed as if there was a steady stream of riders passing me and yet began another battle.

I had prepared myself for the fact that I would obviously not be as strong up the mountain as I was four days ago but I was in pain, the speed was really slow and people were passing me, I was in the land of the mind games. But as I approached turn 20 I saw about ten riders sitting on the curb, two of which had just passed me. I got a little strength from that and rode stronger now that I was on a 10% slope. I kept riding and by turn 13 there were people walking their bikes everywhere and at least 15 riders sitting at every turn.

Daylian suffers on the Galibier, barely aware of the pain awaiting on Alpe d’Huez.

This really empowered me and even made me laugh. Picture how psychotic that must have looked to the other riders, this bald guy wearing a Canadian jersey, pumping out of the saddle, sweating profusely and laughing! I was laughing at how cocky I had been. I started this race really believing that I had a shot at the gold certificate, now it seemed the biggest goal of my life, the only thing that mattered at that point in time was… DON’T WALK YOUR BIKE!!

I had just passed turn 8 and a water stop where I topped up my bottle and my speed was now up to 10km/hr as the slope was now only 8%. Then the pain in my back became too much to bear, I stopped the bike and sat on the ground stretching my back as fast as I could. I was upset at stopping but I figured that I would ride faster with the absence of pain than I would ride while dealing with it. I wasn’t there for more than thirty seconds when some guy rides by me, looks down at me, chuckles, and says “uh oh.”

Be Nice To People On Your Way Up, Because You’ll Meet Them Again On Your Way Down.
I stretched hard and deep, I was furious. I was there for maybe another minute and the pain was reduced I jumped on my bike and stayed out of the saddle for as long as I could hoping once again to avoid the pain, that shot my heart rate to 188. It was hot. I hit turn 5 and could see the village on top of the mountain; I still had 300 meters to climb. Then at turn 4 guess who was walking his bike? Mr. “uh oh”.

I thought, ‘maybe if you had saved your breath you would still be riding.’ I was hurting once again but in typical “I told you so” Rousseau fashion, I made sure I was out of the saddle riding at 12km/hr while I passed him. Obviously that speed didn’t last long, but it lasted long enough for me to be out of his sight and feeling better.

I kept riding, getting more and more excited as the numbers of the turns decreased until finally I rounded turn 1. I was pumped and started riding to finish strong. Paula was now calling on my cell phone and I answered not with hello or how are you but “Be ready I’m 100 meters out!” Then I hung up and put the phone back in my Jersey. I didn’t give her time to say a word. I was passing people like crazy going so fast that people were looking at me as I passed. They knew something I didn’t – I had miscalculated the finish by almost 600 meters! I had my jersey zipped up ready to go across the finish and when I got to where I thought it was, people were still riding, rounding another corner through a wooden tunnel.

I started to panic, thinking, ‘What now? Where is the finish line?’ I unzipped my jersey and amazingly kept my pace strong. Then I made one more turn to the right and saw a short little climb, and I remembered where the finish was, outside of the Palais De Sport.

Daylian (far left in back) approaches the finish in just over 10 hours.

I crested the hill, and saw the finish 200 meters away and downhill. I zipped up my jersey and rose out of the saddle aiming to pass a rider 30 meters ahead of me. We had to go around a traffic circle and the whole course from the crest of the hill had been barricaded so that the spectators couldn’t get too close. This gave a great sensation of speed, and I passed him with 10 meters to the finish. I climbed Alpe D’Huez in 01:37:04 an average speed of 8.6km/hr.

I crossed the finish line and Paula greeted me with a big “You did it! I am so proud of you!”

Funny enough I was ashamed that I didn’t get the gold. But then I reflected on the race and the fact that here I was standing on the top of Alpe D’Huez, comfortably in silver. How lucky was I? The DNF (did not finish) factor we were told by organizers was 30%! If you asked me after the race whether or not I would do it again I would have said no way!

However, that night’s sleep had a strange way of making me forget the pain. I found myself waking up and reliving the race, analyzing my mistakes and coming up with solutions for improving my time. Paula said to me “You’ll do it again.” I smiled and thought “I wonder if I can change my holidays in July next year?”

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